Money & Career

7 tricky ways restaurants rack up your bill

Spot the tricks of the trade to keep bills inflated and have you coming back for more.


Photo, iStock.


A good meal at a favourite restaurant can be a sublime experience. But behind the friendly wait staff, delicious entrées and extensive wine list is a well-oiled machine designed to suck as much money as possible from your wallet, ideally without your knowledge or objection. Here are some of the techniques restaurants use to keep bills inflated and still have you coming back for more.

1. Short rations

When is a pint not a pint? When it’s served in a 16-ounce glass, rather than a regulation 20-ounce glass. The restaurant saves money, plus the thirsty customer is more likely to shell out for a second “pint.”

2. Pricey pairings

Flight pairings, where each course is matched with a glass of wine, sound like a good idea. It’s also a great way for restaurants to up-sell on alcohol, says food blogger Ron Eade. Besides, says Eade, “Do you really need six glasses of wine with dinner?”

3. Mystery wine

Being charged a 300 percent markup on wines you can buy at the liquor store is a turn-off, so restaurants source wines from consignment vendors: If you’ve never seen the bottle before, you have no idea how much it’s being marked up.

4. Menu psychology

Restaurants carefully “engineer” their menus by placing the most profitable entrées on the top-right corner, and in some cases use photos or boxes to highlight the high-margin dishes. “Those are the items they want to flog,” says Ron Eade. Meanwhile, fancy write-ups, including such key words as “local,” “heirloom” and “organic,” make otherwise pedestrian $11 salads sound reasonable.

5. Not so specials

We think of daily specials as offering good value for money — they are, after all, “special.” But pricing daily specials below regular entrées cannibalizes profits, says David Hopkins of Toronto-based restaurant consultancy The Fifteen Group. For that reason, savvy restaurateurs price their specials in line with the rest of their menu items — meaning customers don’t usually get a break on price.

6. Servers with agendas

7. Small bites

Tapas menus are becoming increasingly popular, and can be a lot of fun. But beware: Ordering a bit of this and a bit of that has a way of adding up, resulting in a surprisingly robust bill at the end of the night.

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